worked to death
Amid lack of regulations, heat takes toll on workers
The sun wasn’t even up yet, and Elliot Brown’s shirt was drenched in sweat as he lifted package after package from a conveyor belt and loaded them onto a United Parcel Service truck.
It was already 80 degrees outside on that July morning in 2017. The UPS warehouse, which didn’t have air conditioning, was hot, and the 34-year-old Fort Worth man started feeling sick. Brown asked his boss if he could go home. The answer was no. They were short-handed, his supervisor said.
Shortly after 6 a.m., Brown was found unconscious in the back of a UPS truck. He later died at a hospital.
Brown’s parents are convinced that hot working conditions killed their son, though UPS rejects that assertion.
“For me, it’s been like a nightmare,” said Elliot’s mother, Laura Brown. “When I wake up in the morning, I keep thinking it was all a dream. It’s been very hard.”
More workers die of heat-related causes in Texas than in any other state — 113 between 1992 and 2017. That’s 27 more than California, where the population is much larger. Nationally, more than 800 people died of heat-related causes during the same period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet in Texas, where temperatures regularly soar into triple digits, there are no state laws to protect workers from the heat — no mandated breaks, no shade requirements, no rules to safely acclimate workers to high temperatures before they set off to spend hours on construction sites, landscaping jobs or road paving crews.
Some Texas lawmakers and worker advocates have tried unsuccessfully for years to pass legislation that would mandate basic protections. They have faced stiff opposition from the politically formidable building industry, which gives millions of dollars to lawmakers.
Industry groups contend they are already covered by Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, which require employers to maintain a hazard-free workplace.
But OSHA for nearly 50 years has repeatedly refused to adopt heat-specific regulations, despite the recommendations of a federal agency that studies work-related injuries, independent research indicating workers stay healthier with heat stress protections, and petitions by more than 130 workers advocacy groups, researchers, doctors and educators.
Despite reports of extreme heat inside the UPS warehouse from Brown’s co-workers and others, the medical examiner determined that he died of natural causes: heart and diabetes problems. And OSHA ruled that his death was unrelated to his work at UPS.
Though Brown’s case drew the attention of OSHA investigators, other deaths often escape scrutiny. State and federal data don’t accurately capture the full extent of job-related heat deaths, leaving the tracking of them haphazard at best.
GateHouse Media examined hundreds of heat death records from medical examiners in seven Texas counties and identified 42 heat-related occupational deaths from 2008 to 2018. Only 15 of those had been investigated by OSHA.
And the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety, does not have jurisdiction over city and state workers or people who are self-employed. Employers also don’t always report the deaths to OSHA, and medical examiners might not make a heat connection, ruling that workers died of other causes.
Additionally, the 22 states and territories with their own OSHA programs are not required to report deaths to the federal agency. Though they often enter their inspection data into an OSHA database, the lack of mandatory reporting throws into question the total number of workplace heat deaths across the country.
When a person dies on the job in Texas, employers under OSHA jurisdiction must report it to the federal agency within eight hours. After that, OSHA investigates the incident and determines whether the death was related to the victim’s work environment. OSHA assesses what federal regulations, if any, were violated, can order the company to make changes and can impose a fine.
Because OSHA does not have any heat protection standards, fines are issued under the general duty clause. Between August 2009 and August 2019, OSHA used that standard to cite Texas employers for heat violations at least 37 times.
Though many heat deaths happen on construction sites, OSHA records show that such deaths hit a vast array of industries — oil and gas, waste collection, landscaping, utilities. Workers have died while laboring at golf courses, archaeological digs, hotel laundries and dog kennels.
Brown’s parents say they know firsthand how heat can destroy lives. They have sued UPS.
David Brown, Elliot’s father, says they hope the lawsuit will improve conditions for those working in the heat.
“It’s just a ticking time bomb, and somebody else will go through this,” he said.
OSHA refuses recommendations
On a busy road just east of Interstate 35 in Austin, 300-degree asphalt oozed from the back of a green paving vehicle, the heat radiating back on the city of Austin road crew trying to get through the 96-degree July day.
Nearby, 29-year-old Chris Banda was resting in a patch of shade under a cluster of trees with a half-dozen other crew members, trying to recover from the heat as the traffic rolled by.
“It’s hot and exhausting,” Banda said. “I don’t like it.”
Staying safe in the heat comes down to the basics: rest, shade and water.
In 1972, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — the research arm for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focused on work safety — developed extensive standards to protect people working in extreme heat. Its recommendations, which have been updated several times over the years, include mandatory rest breaks, shade, specific quantities of water, medical monitoring and heat acclimatization plans.
Public Citizen, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy group, filed a petition in 2011 asking OSHA to adopt standards based largely on the NIOSH recommendations.
But for nearly five decades, OSHA has refused to do so. Agency officials say existing rules protect people from unsafe work environments, that heat deaths are not that common and that OSHA has focused on heat as a hazard during its workplace inspections.
Public Citizen filed another petition with the agency last year. It is still under review.
Meanwhile, as the debate played out on the national stage, a Waco doctor began studying whether workplace heat protections could save employers money, increase productivity and improve health — with striking results.
Waco sees improvement
In 2009, Dr. Ronda McCarthy was the medical director of the city of Waco’s employee clinic when she noticed that workers were getting sick on the job from heat — nausea, dizziness, dehydration, cramps, headaches. People were going home and filing workers’ compensation claims, costing the city money.
Heat illnesses in Texas have cost insurers millions of dollars in claims over the years. Between 1998 and 2018, there were nearly 7,600 workers’ comp claims from people who suffered from heat illnesses. Insurers paid out more than $14 million in medical bills and almost $5 million in lost time pay, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.
McCarthy wondered whether they could change that in Waco, while protecting people from harm.
“Heat-related illnesses are 100% preventable if you have the right measures in place,” she said.
The city started implementing the NIOSH standards, sending employees to work with two 10-gallon jugs of water and giving supervisors walkie-talkies to communicate in case of problems. They put canopies on mowers, trained workers to recognize the signs of heat stress, allowed employees to take rest breaks in the shade, created heat stress awareness cards and monitored employee health to assess risk of illness.
They also made sure workers realized that small symptoms could lead to big problems.
“You can just feel like, ‘Ah, it’s not that big a deal,’ but it is,” McCarthy said. “You’re impacting your kidneys and your central nervous system. Time is of the essence.”
McCarthy collected data over nine years and then teamed up with researchers to analyze it. When McCarthy started the program in 2009, 27 of 1,000 workers had experienced heat illness at work. By 2017, the number was zero. During that time, the median worker’s compensation cost went down 50%.
Because they weren’t sick, McCarthy said, employees could stay on the job instead of recovering from illness and falling behind on work.
“Employers maybe think about productivity, and when somebody’s resting, they’re not being productive,” she said. “They don’t see it as when you address heat, you actually add to productivity.”
Seeking systemic change
It was late afternoon on a searing summer day in 2015, 95 degrees outside and even hotter inside the new house without air conditioning where Roendy Granillo was installing hardwood floors.
The 25-year-old Haltom City man had been working in construction since he was 15 years old. Now he was in Melissa — about 40 miles northeast of Dallas — and his hands were cramping up and he was feeling sick.
According to OSHA reports, his boss told him to get some fresh air. But Granillo’s father, Gustavo Granillo, says Roendy’s co-workers told him his son was denied a break. The OSHA report states he had no water, did not take breaks and kept working even though he wasn’t feeling well.
Granillo’s co-workers found him lying on the floor in a bedroom. EMS rushed him to a hospital, where he went into cardiac arrest and died.
The official cause of death: heatstroke. His body temperature was almost 110 degrees.
“Bosses often don’t let them rest or drink water,” Gustavo Granillo said in Spanish. “Bosses don’t allow that because they want to fill their mouths with money.”
OSHA investigated under its general duty clause, which requires employers to ensure a safe workplace. The agency fined his employers a total of $30,000 for failing to keep the worksite free of hazards and for not having a medical plan in place for emergencies. They were also cited for not reporting the incident to OSHA within eight hours of the death.
After Roendy Granillo’s death, his family wanted systemic change. The family joined the Workers Defense Project in an ongoing fight to make the city of Dallas require employers to give construction workers 10-minute rest breaks every four hours.
The Dallas Builders Association fought the measure, arguing that it was redundant because OSHA can cite employers for failure to keep workers safe and that different rules on the local and federal levels could be confusing for businesses.
Ultimately, the council passed the ordinance.
It wasn’t the first Texas city ordinance of its kind. In 2010, the city of Austin ordered no less than 10-minute breaks every four hours for construction workers. The ordinance is enforced by the city code department, though officers only check to ensure that the rest break ordinance is posted on the worksite. More than 500 inspections have been done since 2016, and 150 warnings have been issued, but there have been no fines.
According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the Austin ordinance is working. Workers were 35% more likely to report having a rest break than they were before the ordinance was passed, the study says.
Gustavo Granillo said despite ordinances like the one in Dallas, he still sees and hears of abuses in the construction industry and said that without federal action nothing will change.
“The same atrocities that have happened for years will keep happening,” he said. “Unfortunately in construction, it has always been that way here in Texas.”
While some cities have passed laws protecting workers, efforts to do the same on a state level have failed. Sen. José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, blames it in part on the influence of the business community.
No action by Legislature
Rodriguez joined the effort to give construction workers rest breaks in 2015, when the Workers Defense Project asked him for help getting statewide legislation. Rodriguez filed a bill that would give employees a 15-minute break every four hours.
The bill didn’t even get a hearing.
Just a few months later, in August 2015, an Austin man working for a commercial plumbing company died after digging trenches for an hour and a half. After complaining to his boss that he felt ill, he went to his car to sit in the air conditioning. There, he died due to heat stress, according to an OSHA investigation.
In April 2016, a construction worker in San Antonio who was carrying heavy materials on a framing job became sick, irritable and disoriented. He died of cardiac arrest after becoming severely dehydrated and had a temperature of 104.9, OSHA documents state.
In July 2016, a mason tender in Yoakum spent 10 hours handling 30-pound concrete blocks without a break before dying from heat exhaustion, another OSHA investigation showed.
Rodriguez filed his bill again in 2017.
This time, the proposed legislation got a hearing.
But eventually it died again. Rodriguez believes his colleagues kowtowed to the building and construction industry, which liberally donates to lawmakers. Texas Ethics Commission reports show that HOMEPAC, the political action committee of the Texas Association of Builders, has spent more than $1.5 million on political expenses this decade.
Ned Muñoz, a lobbyist with the association, says builders are not opposed to rest breaks. But the state legislation would have singled out one industry and created another layer of regulation on top of OSHA rules, he said.
Employers are committed to the health and safety of their workers, he said, adding that the association collaborated with OSHA to develop a 44-page heat safety guide for its members to help keep workers safe.
“People aren’t being made to work hours and hours without rest breaks,” Muñoz said. “We’re just not seeing that on our job sites.”
Advocates dispute the idea that OSHA effectively uses its general duty clause to discipline companies in instances of heat violations, saying the agency’s enforcement is far weaker than it would be if it had a real heat standard.
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California is one of three states — along with Minnesota and Washington — with its own OSHA plans to have adopted heat stress standards for workplaces. Between 2013 and 2017, California completed 7,082 inspections that resulted in a heat standard citation or violation, according to Public Citizen. During that time, the federal OSHA conducted 142 inspections resulting in a heat citation or violation under the general duty clause, Public Citizen reported.
Adrian Shelley of Public Citizen doubts Texas will pass statewide heat protections any time soon, saying an anti-worker sentiment is pervasive. Last year legislators tried to pass a bill that would have preempted local employment laws such as sick time and rest breaks for construction workers. The bill failed, but Shelley said the agenda behind it lives on.
“I’m fairly pessimistic about where things stand in Texas in regard to the protections we are willing to require of companies,” he said.
‘We encourage them to stop’
Elliot Brown loved fishing, playing pool, the Arkansas Razorbacks and his job at UPS.
He was always bringing home company swag — cups, T-shirts, hats — and frequently talked about his job on Facebook. Several times before his death, he posted selfies in his uniform with remarks about how hot it was.
Brown had recently lost weight, and though he had dealt with diabetes over the years, the disease didn’t seem to be giving him problems, his father said. But his mother worried about Brown working in the heat.
Between 2015 and 2017, nine people at the Northside Drive UPS facility suffered from heat-related illnesses, according to the OSHA investigation into Brown’s death. Their symptoms included kidney failure, fainting, muscle cramps and nausea.
“He’d come to my home, and when I opened the door, he’d just be standing there drenched and exhausted from the heat,” Laura Brown said. “He barely walked through the door.”
On July 27, 2017, a UPS supervisor called Laura Brown to report that her son had collapsed on the job. By the time his parents reached the hospital, Elliot was dead.
OSHA rules require companies to report on-the-job deaths to OSHA within eight hours. But UPS did not do that. Instead, according to the OSHA report, a supervisor called someone in “corporate,” who, despite the fact that no one knew yet how Brown had died, decided that the death wasn’t work-related.
A UPS spokesman told GateHouse Media that the company acted appropriately. OSHA fined UPS almost $13,000 for failing to report the death but then repealed the fine after UPS promised to train its workers on reporting deaths in the workplace. OSHA did not cite the company for any other violations.
Although the medical examiner did not blame the death on heat, his family believes the working conditions exacerbated the medical conditions that technically caused his death.
UPS did not deny in OSHA reports that the supervisor refused to let Brown go home the day he died, but a spokesman for the company said it provides water and ice for employees and has a training program for all employees on heat awareness. The spokesman declined, due to ongoing litigation, to tell GateHouse Media whether Brown had been denied a break.
“If an employee ever feels ill for any reason, we encourage them to stop what they are doing and notify their management,” the company said in a statement. “We never want them to continue working to the point that they risk their health or safety.”
Elliot Brown is buried in Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth, in a plot his father bought for himself years earlier. David Brown built a flower box around the headstone, and now that winter is on the way, he’ll plant colorful pansies.
He still can’t accept what happened to his son.
“He let them know something was wrong,” Brown said. “If they had made different choices, he might still be alive.”
Dan Keemahill contributed data analysis to this story
U.S. Rep. Judy Chu was an assemblywoman in the California Legislature when a spate of deaths hit the state’s farmworkers.
Asuncion Valdivia died in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in 105-degree heat. Salud Zamudio Rodriguez died in 2005 while working on a bell pepper farm. That same year, Constantino Cruz died 10 days after he collapsed from the heat in a tomato field.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered emergency rules for those working in the fields: Water and shade were to be provided immediately for those who fell ill while working in the heat.
Then, in 2006, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Cal/OSHA, approved regulations designed to protect those working in extreme temperatures.
California has fewer heat-related work deaths now — two in 2018 compared with 10 in 2005 — but whether that is related to the heat regulations is unclear, said David Hornung, coordinator for Cal/OSHA’s Heat and Agriculture program. Still, state regulators say they are educating employers and more are complying with the rules.
Chu wants the rest of the country to follow California’s lead. The congresswoman recently filed the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act.
“Some employers have pushed back against the legislation, claiming that they already have some policies in place to address heat conditions for their workers,” Chu said. “However, employer policies can be inconsistent in providing all the necessary components of heat protection.”
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